When I first picked up Robert Schuller's massive autobiography detailing his trajectory from Iowa farm boy to American icon, I wasn't at all sure I was going to like him.
I admit from the get-go that the avuncular evangelist for "possibility thinking" deserves respect for the sheer audacity of his accomplishments. How many American clergy lead a 10,000-member church on a 40-acre campus? How many preach in a building paneled with more than 10,000 windows that contains a world-class organ and a stream running down the middle aisle, for Pete's sake?
Surely no one would have predicted such a spectacular phenomenon when the Reformed Church of America pastor arrived in Orange County, California, more than 45 years ago with $500 in assets to start a mission congregation amid the unreached people groups of the West Coast.
The septuagenarian's keen ability to ride the wave of popular psychology and sincere desire to make the Good News something easily grasped made him a magnet. First he attracted Southern Californians, then viewers of his Hour of Power all over the country, people put off by the status quo traditionalism of many American mainline congregations in the mid-20th century.
An American Success Story
Schuller has lived a life free from public scandal, aside from an altercation with a flight attendant in the mid-'90s (about where to hang his clergy robe—an incident not mentioned in the book). My Journey is an upbeat, uniquely American mix of "farm boy makes good" and "God helps those who help themselves." While he avoids malicious gossip or attacks on his theological opponents, Schuller doesn't prod the conscience or even awaken the mind to go deeper in understanding the mysteries of sin, suffering, and redemption.
In recounting the occasional attack on his positivist theology or his "edifice complex," Schuller responds with a restrained incredulity: How could they be cynical about somebody so obviously well intentioned?
"You can go anywhere from nowhere. My life is witness to that. I was born at the dead end of a dirt road that had no name and no number—in a flood" is a pretty vivid evocation of the American dream. That's where Schuller begins his story, right in America's heartland.
The youngest of five children, Robert Harold Schuller was raised in what apparently was an undemonstrative but close-knit and loving farm family in which a stoic mother ruled the home, raising the children to obey authority and respect the strict piety of the Dutch Reformed Church.
It is hard not to speculate that Schuller's desire to preach "comfort religion" was driven at least in part by his desire for the approval of his mother, Jennie: "Never would I hear the words I wanted more than anything to hear: 'I'm proud of you, Bob.' I'm sure that she was proud of her one child who became a Dominee [cleric]. After all, for her this meant returning the family to its honorable roots. But affirmation and affection were emotions that she seldom expressed. After all, pride was a sin."
Jennie's younger brother, Henry, was a missionary to China. Four weeks before Schuller's fifth birthday, his vocation was set. With an authority that resonated deep in the young Schuller's heart, Henry declared that the little boy who loved fishing and daydreaming would someday be a preacher. Many years later, as a young just-ordained minister starting out in Ivanhoe, Illinois, Schuller found out that his own working-class father had dreamed of being a preacher himself.
Although molded by the slightly dour outlook of the Reformed congregation in which he grew up, Schuller was also profoundly affected by the less constrained teaching of his professors at the Reformed Church's Western Theological Seminary. There Schuller began developing his concept of theological positivism as a lens through which to interpret Scripture. For example, he asserts that while Paul "railed against sin," Christ taught "peace, love, and joy."
Such a conclusion is based on an incomplete reading of the Gospels, certainly. Schuller's approach to Paul appears symptomatic of a certain deliberate naïvete in his understanding of human motives and divine grace. The world is full of the evidence of human brokenness, and ignoring it will not make it go away.
Wrestling with his misgivings about John Calvin's notion of total depravity, Schuller began to stake out his own theological ground.
"I deduced that if I focused not on generating guilt, but. … trust and positive hope, I would be preaching against sin via a creative, redemptive approach."
As he moved on from seminary to pastor a small church in Chicago, which experienced explosive growth under his leadership, Schuller refined his message so that it became easy to understand and convincing in its directness.
On the day of his ordination in a suburb of Chicago, Schuller felt God's hand on him, directing him to a verse that would serve as his own North Star: "You shall be called the repairer of the breach and the restorer of paths to dwell in" (Isa. 58:12).
In a career that seems remarkably single-minded (one of the virtues of autobiography), Schuller was inspired by the idea that if he could get the gospel out in an encouraging and hope-provoking way, then he would indeed be a healer and a restorer.
Learning From Peale
Years later, ordained and conducting Sunday services at the Orange Drive-In Theater ("Come as you are in the family car!"), Schuller asked another famous Reformed Church pastor and proponent of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, to preach at his outdoor mission.
After hearing Peale say that "any human being can be anything he wants to be through the power Jesus Christ brings into his life," Schuller became convinced that he needed to stamp this timeless message with his personal touch.
"I concluded that I'd have to present Bible truths in simple words and simple messages as Jesus had done. No heavy theology. No intimidation. No judgment. Just inspiring ideas that might bring people from doubt to faith."
Throughout the course of his ministry, Schuller has displayed a remarkable genius for church growth. Much of the drama here is experiencing the evangelist's frustrations and answered prayers as he moves from preaching on the roof of a drive-in movie snack bar to pastoring a 40-acre megachurch complex only a mile from Disneyland.
Schuller is honest about his times of depression. But they are chased away by moments of insight when Schuller hears God encouraging him to continue pursuing his dream.
In addition to an apparently intuitive flair for real estate, Schuller was gifted with a talent for marketing and a user-friendly message that many clergy wrestling with planting seeker-friendly congregations might envy.
Through his Robert Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership, the man with a wonderful sensitivity to cultural trends encouraged creative young pastors to leapfrog denominational boundaries and reach the unchurched without scaring them by telling them how "bad" they were. Instead, those who started mission congregations were to get this message across to unbelievers: Jesus Christ is the cure for what ails them. "He will then lead them in becoming persons of positive-thinking faith, hope and love!"
Less praiseworthy is Schuller's apparent determination to seek success and avoid controversy. Although the formative years of his ministry occurred during a time of turmoil in which many of his clergy colleagues were risking their careers in taking a stand for racial equality, Schuller chose to avoid engaging in what he rather enigmatically calls "politics":
"With the central focus on legitimate and timely opposition to racism and war and the selfish excesses of capitalism, the mental, emotional, and spiritual hurts of the average person were being ignored. As a result, millions of spiritually hungry souls were leaving their churches. I returned home and launched both an alternative message and an alternative strategy for turning a declining American church around. I had survived politics. I had survived the lure of ambition. My message was now ringing clear inside of me: I was called to be a preacher, and I was called to preach hope. Nothing more and nothing less."
Praiseworthy as it is to have a clear and consistent message, it is fair to ask whether anyone who wrestles with the Jesus of the Gospels can talk about the hope of heaven without including God's continuing concern for justice in the here and now.
Instead, the influential pastor befriends other wealthy and powerful people like movie stars (including John Wayne), the eccentric manufacturing and oil mogul Armand Hammer (the man who introduced Schuller to the Russians), and President Bill Clinton (though Schuller publicly broke with Clinton when the allegations of Oval Office sexual misconduct became public).
Threaded through the 500+ pages of My Journey is the tale of a devoted family man who has experienced his own share of personal trauma: a life-threatening brain injury, a daughter's motorcycle accident, the cancer of his beloved wife, Arvella.
With his son Robert Anthony anointed as successor, the ambitious evangelist could, in his mid-70s, rest on his laurels.
But will he? We leave him standing on another vacant lot, dreaming of the time when his Visitors Center will be done, and more pilgrims will arrive at the International Center for Possibility Thinking.
The reader is left to wonder how much of this empire was built by God's design, and how much by a strong-willed character determined to leave his imprint on five decades of American church history. How chastening to know that God does number our days. And how encouraging for all of us to know that somewhere, out there in another farming community or an inner-city rowhouse, God continues to call new visionaries to dream his dreams.
Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans is an Episcopal priest and freelance writer based in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
In 1997, Christianity Today sister publication Leadership Journal interviewed the "grandfather of the seeker movement" for insights on reaching a changing culture.
The Apologetics Index entry on Schuller says he has been called "the evangelist without a gospel, known for his unorthodox and heretical, pseudo-Christian teachings."
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